Beijing is shrouded in a pore-clogging, snot-blackening blanket of horrific pollution. And has been for days. It hangs over the city, blocking the view in every direction, permeating every inch of space. The “fog” blurs the edges of buildings, casts an eery light in daytime and, at night, neon street lights and car headlights alike bleed into the air. At times, you’ll only get about a metre of clean, unfettered vision. Sometimes the haze will grace the lower reaches of subway stations with its wafting presence. It’ll get in your throat, it’ll get in your eyes and it’ll give you headaches.
Following last week’s bitterly cold snap, the city has heated up once again. With it, the warm front has brought a vast cloud of pollution, the likes of which we do not often see, despite the terrible pollution we have seen this month. Many people are unsurprised (or unaware where these days are on the scale), but nobody seems to be seriously pondering the cause.
I mentioned in an earlier post the happiness that turning-on-national-central-heating day brings. Each year, northern residents wait several weeks, often in the sudden cold, desperately hoping for some heating. During those weeks I wear more clothes indoors than out, for the cold penetrates the buildings like air conditioning, while the sun heats outdoor spaces (provided the pollution isn’t too bad). Well, simply turning on the heating is not the end of it. It is also when permission is granted to coal-burning residences to begin releasing clouds of carbon into the air, nation-wide. So while the nation is warmer, and many people are happier because of it, the nation’s lungs are at higher risk.
So, how do we deal with it? First off, we talk about it. A lot. Whether you’re talking to expats or Chinese people, days like this do not go unnoticed or undocumented. Jintian kongqi bu hao becomes a greeting on days like this. Foreigners are less than content with simply commenting that ‘today the air is not good’, instead taking to social media platforms to complain, sharing screenshots from whichever Air Quality Index (AQI) app they believe reliable, and generally not believing the truth of what it indicates:
Secondly, we measure it. Or, realistically, we watch as other people measure it for us and moan when the reports are less than satisfactory. For example: At a politically significant moment last year, the U.S. Embassy’s readings, which are generally thought to be the most accurate – or the releases most truthful – were blocked, so that unwelcome kongqi reports could be hushed while foreign diplomats visited Beijing. Saving face is a national concern. This weekend, the kongqi reading did not change for three days on the app I use. I’d read a Guardian article about soaring pollution levels in China’s capital, sent along with a loving dose of concern from my dad. So I checked: it read 267. The same as two days before. But, being used to the regular deathly greyness of Beijing air and too busy to pause and think, I carried on as normal. I ignored it. There’s not much I can do to alter the readings…
Today, though, it finally showed: off the scale
Third, we protect ourselves. Wearing a mask for outdoor activities is imperative. Various studies have shown the effectiveness of wearing a mask – even a simple surgeons mask will clear up to 80% of particles from the air you breathe. The 3M is the best among disposable masks, according to the research I am aware of, plus it is cheap and sold all over the place.
You can also buy reusable pollution masks with changeable filters, some of which look much like gas masks. A good mask is definitely worth the investment for a long-term stay. YOU CAN SMELL THE DIFFERENCE between the dirty polluted air and the air that reaches your nostrils under a 3M (cigarette smoke takes on a particularly odd smell).
Home air filtration systems are also very popular. Tere are a vast number of high-end, expensive systems that come with extra functions and noise-reduction technology. But I go for the cheap end of the scale, without sacrificing air quality. I use a HEPA filter strapped to an electric fan, as developed and tested by the awesome people at Smart Air. One in my bedroom and one in the living room is sufficient; with the door closed, a single filter+fan combination will reduce pollution to a minimum within one hour.